Breakfast is recommended as part of a healthy diet because it is associated with healthier macro- and micronutrient intakes, BMI and lifestyle. Breakfast is also widely promoted to improve cognitive function and academic performance, leading to the provision of breakfast initiatives by public health bodies. Despite this positive and intuitive perception of cognitive benefits, there has been no systematic review of the evidence. Systematic review methodology was employed to evaluate the effects of breakfast on cognitive performance in well-nourished children and nutritionally at-risk or stunted children. Acute experimental studies, school feeding programmes and studies of habitual breakfast intake are reviewed. Comparisons of breakfast v. no breakfast and breakfasts differing in energy and macronutrient composition are discussed. Included are forty-five studies described in forty-one papers published between 1950 and 2008. The evidence indicates that breakfast consumption is more beneficial than skipping breakfast, but this effect is more apparent in children whose nutritional status is compromised. There is a lack of research comparing breakfast type, precluding recommendations for the size and composition of an optimal breakfast for children's cognitive function. Few studies examined adolescents. Studies of school breakfast programmes suggest that such interventions can have positive effects on academic performance, but this may be in part explained by the increased school attendance that programmes encourage. The present systematic review considers methodological issues in this field and makes recommendations for future research design and policy priorities.